Savant Artist Blows Our Minds

Drawing from memory, renowned British artist tackles Houston landscape after chopper ride

Drawing from memory, artist tackles Houston landscape for public view

Stephen Wiltshire, April 2016
Pilot Doug Dickey of Apex Helicopters, from left, Stephen Wiltshire, Lea Weingarten, filmmaker Chris Hodson and Annette Wiltshire. Photo by Joel Luks
Stephen Wiltshire, Fertitta helicopter
Stephen Wiltshire poses outside Tilman Fertitta's luxury helicopter. Photo by Joel Luks
Stephen Wiltshire
British artist Stephen Wiltshire prepares for his second helicopter ride. Photo by Joel Luks
Stephen Wiltshire helicopter
Stephen Wiltshire snaps a few photos while studying the Houston landscape. Photo by Morris Malakoff
Stephen Wiltshire, Michael Dokupil
Stephen Wiltshire and Michael Dokupil inside Tilman Fertitta's luxury chopper. Photo by Morris Malakoff
Stephen Wiltshire, April 2016
Stephen Wiltshire, Fertitta helicopter
Stephen Wiltshire
Stephen Wiltshire helicopter
Stephen Wiltshire, Michael Dokupil

For some of us who rely on Facebook to remind us what we had for breakfast, British artist Stephen Wiltshire’s innate aptitude seems incomprehensible, baffling and superhuman. Wiltshire has the ability to precisely recall a large amount of visual details after studying his subjects for a relatively short amount of time.

He does so with ease, seamlessly and accurately, as he has demonstrated time and time again around the world.

After a 45-minute helicopter tour to survey the landscape of a city, Wiltshire works publicly for several days to realize a large hand-drawn panoramic interpretation from memory. He puts on a pair of ear buds and listens to Motown, rhythm and blues, funk, soul and ‘70s disco while doing what he’s done since he was three years old: Drawing to communicate something that’s uniquely his.

“If I have time, I will study the area first, especially somewhere I am not familiar with,” Wiltshire says. “ I make a few rough sketches in my book and then study those as well as taking pictures to help me remember the detail. Sometimes it's hard for me and sometimes it's very easy. It depends, but I enjoy it very much.”

In Houston, Wiltshire will do exactly that.

Watch the artist at work

From Tuesday through Saturday, Wiltshire will visit The Galleria to execute his 3-foot by 12 foot-drawing of the Bayou City, working everyday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a break for lunch from 1 to 2 p.m. The five-day live performances, titled “Elevate Houston: The Big Picture,” will be held in Galleria IV between Nordstrom and Macy’s.

“When I do panoramas, I put a lot of pressure on myself because I have to fit it in within a couple of days,” he adds. “After doing several panoramas over the years, I have now worked out how much I need to do each day.”

He’s been called a superhero with super powers, rain man (particularly because Dustin Hoffman is a big fan), a human camera, a savant and a genius. His autism — let's call it neurodiversity, shall we? — being used often as the basis for his extraordinary ability. But simply, Wiltshire thinks of himself as an artist who loves to draw. Some like to label him as an autistic artist, but Wiltshire doesn’t quite see the connection.

Audience gives him energy

“I always feel tired after working for several days, but I feel good inside as I get closer to completing my creation,” he says. “The crowd gives me energy, and I meet lots of people and have many interviews so my day is never dull.”

The forty-something year old, who is quiet unless he’s singing, dancing and playing the piano, is confidently shy and has a warm connection with his sister, Annette Wiltshire. While visiting Houston, rumor has it that he has already consumed a healthy dose of tacos.

Wiltshire’s most excellent Houston adventure began on Sunday, when billionaire and reality television star Tilman Fertitta offered his luxury chopper for the artist, a few filmmakers and lead patron Michael Dokupil, who engaged Lea Weingarten of Weingarten Art Group to project manage Wiltshire’s public appearance. The threat of inclement weather shortened the trip, which was re-started on Monday thanks to an unexpected clearing of the skies in the evening and a savvy pilot from Apex Helicopters.

A passion for his art

“Stephen’s work is uniquely inspiring on a myriad levels,” Weingarten said. “Not only are his cityscape interpretations beautifully accurate and genuine, but also his passion for his art adds to the emotional prowess of the finished works. Stephen’s art speaks to everyone.”

The completed work will be displayed in a public setting. Prints of the drawing will be available for sale, with proceeds benefiting KIPP Houston Public Schools.

From his early years as a mute boy who had trouble relating to people to his professional triumphs, Wiltshire’s life has been well documented, his story serving as a source of inspiration for anyone who has felt misunderstood or marginalized.

Wiltshire’s hope is to encourage others to pursue their dreams regardless of whatever obstacles they might encounter.